“Depressingly inept …”

David Brooks said it best. Mitt Romney’s comment about the nearly half of Americans who don’t pay income taxes and are thus government dependents was “depressingly inept.

In a very narrow sense, Mr. Romney was correct. The Tax Policy Center has determined that 46.4 percent of American households paid no income taxes in 2011. But at the same time, most households paid payroll taxes. Moreover, of the 18.1 percent of households that paid neither income nor payroll taxes, the center found that more than half were made up of older Americans and that more than a third of those who were not elderly had incomes of below $20,000.

Romney’s real gaffe, as Brooks pointed out, was suggesting that Americans who paid no income taxes are “dependent upon government.” After all, these “freeloaders” include war veterans who get treatment at VA hospitals, students who take out federal loans for college and retirees who qualify for Social Security or Medicare. They include, in other words, many of the people whom Romney is trying to persuade to vote for him.

So how did Romney make such a stupid and gratuitously offensive remark? Brooks – and others – have claimed that Romney is, at bottom, a decent and caring man and not Gordon Gekko. But he is also a man who has no coherent political philosophy. Thus, he’s inclined to say whatever he thinks is likely to appeal to the audience that he is addressing at the moment.

In the present case, Romney made his “off-the-cuff” remark at a $50,000-a-person private fundraiser for wealthy Republicans. But why did he think that it would play well to such a crowd? I mean, these people were presumably as intelligent as they were affluent. According to Brooks, Romney thought his remark was an applause line because today’s Republican Party has no heart. Brooks cited a survey by the Pew Research Center to the effect that in 1987, during President Reagan’s second term, 62 percent of Republicans believed that government had the responsibility to help those who can’t help themselves. Today, only 40 percent of Republicans believe that.

That finding frankly floored me. When I was writing speeches for the budget office of the Reagan White House, in that very year of 1987, the party line was that the GOP was committed to eliminating fraud, waste and abuse in government programs, while continuing to care for America’s “truly needy.” Apparently, that’s not the case any more.

Maybe Republicans need to take another look at Ronald Reagan. Specifically, I would refer them to a speech that Reagan gave to the Tennessee State Legislature on March 15, 1982. He said something on that occasion that has been in my quote file for nearly 30 years. He said this: “I grew up in the Depression. I watched one Christmas Eve as my father opened what he thought was a greeting from his employer, only to find out it was a pink slip and that he no longer had a job. I know the humiliation that every family feels when the head of the household can’t find work, and I know there are times when only government can help.”

Fancy a Republican candidate for president saying such a thing today!

Under Reagan, the Republican Party was a party that could appeal to a broad cross-section of Americans – including Democrats. Since Reagan, the Republican base has become increasingly narrow, narrow-minded and mean-spirited. And Romney, by pandering to that dwindling base, is failing to build the broad coalition that he needs to win the White House.

Hal GordonHal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.

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  • Aaron

    Thanks Hal. Appreciate your perspective, and digging up the Reagan quote. Great post and excellent insights!